A Russian hacker being held in Israel and facing extradition to the United States urged the family of an Israeli-American woman sentenced in Russia to seven-and-a-half years in prison for alleged drug smuggling to appeal to Israeli officials for a prisoner swap.
Aleksey Burkov, a Russian IT specialist arrested in Israel in 2015 at the request of Interpol, said the family of Naama Issachar, 26, was contacted with the proposal through a friend in Israel before she was handed the sentence on Friday in a Russian court.
Issachar has been detained in Moscow for the last six months on suspicion of drug smuggling after a reported 10 grams of marijuana was found in her bag during a stopover in Russia for a connecting flight. Issachar, who has dual Israeli-American citizenship, was returning from a trip to India in April. As her backpack was moving along a conveyor belt a police sniffer dog identified it as suspicious. Authorities searched the bag and found the marijuana wrapped in plastic, concealed inside a toiletries bag.
Her sentence on Friday came despite a “personal” plea to President Vladimir Putin for leniency from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Speaking to RT (Russia Today), a Russian television network funded by the government and widely considered its propaganda outlet, Burkov said earlier this week that he “asked [Issachar’s relatives] to talk to Israeli diplomats but as far as I understand, they assured the family there will be no swap.”
The alleged intermediator between the families was said to be Konstantin Bekenshtein, a Ukranian immigrant to Israel, who said he met Burkov on one of his previous trips to the country and has visited him in Israeli prison, according to a Haaretz report (in Hebrew) on Friday.
Bekenshtein contacted Yaffa Issachar in August, according to the report, writing to her in a message: “As a father of two girls, I understand what you are going through and wish you and your family only good things. As unfortunate as it is, Naama will receive a sentence of between five to seven years. If you want to join forces to end this nightmare for Naama and Aleksey, I am available at any time. Lawyers will not help.”
Issachar’s family did not respond to the message and told Haaretz that texts from Bekenshtein were blocked on various channels, amid concerns he was trying to take advantage of their situation.
“For months now, the hacker’s family has been asking us for help,” Yaffa Issachar told Haaretz Friday. “We now understand that this is true. Naama is paying for this.”
Burkov is wanted on embezzlement charges in the United States for a massive credit card scheme that saw him allegedly steal millions of dollars from American consumers. Burkov told RT that he was an “average man,” an IT freelancer from St. Petersburg who was on holiday with his girlfriend in Israel “when his life was turned upside down.” He claimed that he was “hijacked” and taken into custody as part of “a standard US scheme.”
In a Facebook post two months ago, Bekenshtein wrote that despite repeated requests from Russian officials, Israel was in “no hurry” to release Burkov. “The Russians are prepared to hand over Issachar in exchange for Aleksey Burkov,” he wrote, “but Israel is doing nothing.”
“The only reason Russia does not release Naama is Israel’s refusal to release Burkov…The solution is not in Moscow but in Jerusalem,” Bekenshtein alleged in the post.
In the RT report which did not name Bekenshtein, he was quoted as saying that the “Israeli government covers up the fact that there’s such an opportunity and that Russia is ready to do it. No one knows that they would bring her home if they wanted to.”
The RT report, aired on Thursday, said Burkov’s family “suggested that the Russian Foreign Ministry negotiate a prisoner swap between the two countries,” adding that “Russian diplomats who are trying to help him say his situation is growing graver.”
Bekenshtein told Haaretz that the Russian authorities did not make official contact with him and did not ask him to contact Issachar’s family, but he decided to do so on his own.
He also told Haaretz that he learned through Burkov and his lawyers that Russian officials allegedly made previous attempts to propose a swap with “Israelis in closed institutions in Russia.”
Earlier Friday, a senior Israeli official told Hebrew media that Russia offered several times in recent months to free Issachar if Israel agrees to release Burkov.
The official said the deal never went ahead because Israel had already begun the official extradition process, and also didn’t want to anger the US. Israeli diplomatic officials told their counterparts in Moscow that it was impossible to stop Burkov’s extradition since the Supreme Court had already approved the move.
In a statement on Friday in the wake of Issachar’s sentence, Netanyahu’s office said there was no possibility of preventing Burkov’s extradition to the United States.
The statement said Netanyahu was “personally involved in Naama’s case in recent weeks” and asked for her punishment to be lightened and for an improvement in the conditions in which she is being held.
“Netanyahu requested a commuting of the sentence and an easing of the terms of Naama’s detention,” the statement said. “To our regret, the Russian prosecution has not yet accepted … these requests.”
The PMO added that the punishment “is disproportionate and does not fit the nature of the offense being attributed to Issachar.”
It said Israel “will continue to make every effort with the Russian authorities in order to bring about Naama Issachar’s release and return her to her family.”
The Foreign Ministry too condemned the sentence.
“This is a disproportionately heavy punishment for a young Israeli woman without any criminal past who was on a connecting flight at the airport in Moscow on her way to Israel,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, the Russian authorities have not responded to our entreaties to deal with this case in congruence with the circumstances of her arrest,” it added.
Her family said the sentence showed she was being held “hostage” by Russia.
“We heard the sentence. Until now we’ve been dealing with trying to prove there was not attempted drug smuggling but now we understand that this is a larger matter. Naama is being held as a hostage,” the family was quoted saying by Channel 13 news.
“I don’t know how much longer she can hold on,” her mother Yaffa told channel 12 after the sentencing. “I appeal to the prime minister, please help her.”
Issachar doesn’t deny that there were 10 grams of marijuana in her bag, but has claimed she had no intention of crossing Russian border control and therefore is not a smuggler, according to a Haaretz report.
Prosecutors say that because Issachar’s bag entered Russian airspace with the drugs inside it, her actions should be considered smuggling.
Russia has harsh laws on recreational drug use and possession of even a small amount for personal use is punishable by a long jail sentence.
AFP contributed to this report